Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Tapping (Way Too Early) Day

Hindsight is so clear, but three weeks ago it sure looked like we were in for a week-long heat wave. The forecast called for unseasonably warm weather in the upper thirties. Worried that we were going to miss out on the first major maple sap flow of the season, I resolved to go ahead and get the taps in the trees. I suppose my jumping of the gun was fueled by my excitement to try out our shiny new evaporator as well!

On Sunday afternoon, the boys and I pulled out a couple of the wooden sleds that I had mailed home during one of my working stints in Germany. We loaded them up with tools and supplies and headed for the woods. There was enough snow on the ground to help the sleds glide along without being so much that it was tiresome to walk through. The boys pulled the sleds and chattered excitedly. It was nice to be out in the woods together rather than cooped up in the house.

We threw ourselves into the work and fell into a good rhythm quickly. I scanned the forest for the green ribbons that indicated which trees we had picked to tap and chose a route by which we could visit them all. I stopped at each tree, measured its circumference, logged the data and decided how many taps each would get. With Aidan's assistance, I drilled the holes and placed the tabs before moving to the next tree.

Sean followed along behind with his sled and completed the operation. At each tree he assembled the blue sap sacks to their holders and placed them on each of the taps. He also wrote the log book number of each tree on the bags to help us with our record keeping. His was the more laborious of the jobs. I was careful to keep my pace slow enough that we could talk back and forth as we worked and I could lend him a hand now and again.

Things went pretty smoothly except that the sleds kept tipping over. The heavy boxes on the tall sleds made them top-heavy such that any little branch in our path would topple them over again and again. After a while I finally tied the two sleds into a double-wide arrangement and put an end to the constant need to right our burdens and collect our tools from the snow.

About half-way through we broke out the thermos that we had prepared and sat down in the snow for a much-needed hot chocolate break. The woods were beautiful and our spirits were high. We joked and laughed together as we all enjoyed the time together and the adventure of the day.

Eight-year-old Aidan is a master of making ordinary sticks into fantastic playthings. After our break was over, Sean and I resumed the work as Aidan stalked us from behind the trees with stick rifles, stick rocket-launchers, stick light-sabers and stick bow and arrows. Now and then he would emerge from cover to charge toward us with a war whoop and a snarl. After collapsing into giggles over our pantomimed terror, he would bound off to take cover in the woods and begin the game all over again.

It was a pleasant day even if it was a bit early in the season. We emerged from the woods just as the light was fading in the sky. With a sense of satisfaction of another task behind us, we trudged back toward the warmth of the house and the looming prospect of another week of work and school.


Big News On The Maple Front!

As the days have begun to cool, my mind has turned toward the upcoming sugaring season with increasing regularly. Of primary concern is the fact of I have not had time to cut any firewood for use in boiling down the sap when it starts to flow in late January. We still have a nice pile of wood from that kindly given to us last spring by our neighbor, Tim, but it is a far cry from the amount that will be needed.

Toward the end of last year's run, Tim had spoken to us of his interest in offering the use of maple trees on his land. I enthusiastically agreed and said we could work out some kind of a deal to compensate him. We resolved to take some time this summer to scout his property for trees. Many months have passed since that conversation and we have both been too busy to get around to the task. As the leaves on our maples have begun to turn and fall to the ground I had begun to worry that we wouldn't get it done before the trees were bare and much more difficult to identify.

Yesterday morning as Sean and I were installing coop windows, my cell phone jumped to life in my pocket. It turned out to be Tim calling to suggest that it would be a good day to scout those woods for maples and I heartily agreed. We set a time to begin in the afternoon.

Having been distracted from our coop construction work by the thought of maple sugaring, Sean and I decided that we should spend the early afternoon surveying our own property. We wanted to check the growth of each of the trees that we tapped last year, just in case any had grown big enough to accept an additional tap. The guidelines for the number of taps per tree has limits based on the size of each tree to protect its health. We also wanted to check the rest of our woods to see if we could find any other trees that we had missed in our late-fall survey last year.

We had a great time walking around in the woods and checking the trees. Before long we had located quite a few trees including a couple of very large ones that we had never noticed before. We excitedly measured each one, marked them with survey tape and calculated the additional taps we would be able to bring into production. All told, we were able to find seven new trees and we will be able to grow our operation from last year's 15 taps to a total of 28.

We neared the edge of where the property line divides the woods just as Tim joined us in the search. We spent a couple of hours crossing back and forth together through his beautiful parcel, peering into the foliage, measuring and marking trunks and chatting as we went. By the end we were exhausted and amazed at the sheer number of maples we had found.

The final count of our combined sugarbush is enough trees to support a whopping 72 taps! That is such a huge increase over the 15 taps that worked me to death last winter and they are spread over a much wider area. We were very happy with the results and the agreement that we worked out to form a sort of partnership in the venture. I am especially happy because my firewood woes were solved at the same time because his portion of the bargain is to provide all of the firewood that I need to process the sap from both properties!

Now I am going to have to start thinking about some technology improvements to make this large of an enterprise manageable. Tim made the suggestion that I should invest in an ATV for hauling the sap back to the boiler each day and I'm inclined to agree. I suppose a horse would be more traditional but would probably add more complication and cost than I am ready for.

I also need to think seriously about our equipment and facilities for evaporating, filtering and bottling the syrup. Given the expense and the time involved, I'm sure the scaling up of this operation will need to take place in steps over the next few years. Just the same, it's very exciting to think of the potential that we have at hand. Stay tuned to see how it goes!

The End Of Maple Season

The warm weather of mid-March has finally taken its toll. At the end of last week, the buds on the maple trees in our sugarbush began to swell and open. That is the signal that the sugaring season has reached the end as the internal chemistry of the trees change to stimulate blooming and leaf growth.

We pulled the taps from the trees, washed the equipment and began boiling down the final batch. That final batch has been accumulating in the freezer for a while. Most nights would find me out behind the house feeding the evaporator until the early hours but I was unable to keep up with the volume of sap that arrived with each new day. By the time the taps were finally pulled, 63 gallons of sap had accumulated.

I completed the process late last evening and got it into the bottles. The photo shows the results which totaled 1.3 gallons of syrup. That brings our total yield for this season to 1.8 gallons. It's a tiny sum but I have to say that I'm as proud as can be of every drop.

It has been an adventure but I'm relieved that it is done. Reflecting back on the experience, I would have to say that it was a great deal of work. Those seven weeks of lugging sap and tending the woodstove in the cold made me realize that I need to come up with some labor saving improvements. A big step would be the acquisition of a proper evaporator to speed the boiling process but I'm not sure that our small number of trees justifies the expense.

The last footnote to the season is to mention that my neighbor has shown an interest in getting involved next year. His woods are considerably larger than ours and he seems very interested in having me expand my operation to include his maples as well. In fact, he very generously supplied much of the firewood that I used this year. When the weather and our schedules permit, we plan to take a survey of his woods and talk about the possibilities for next year. Who knows, maybe a nice shiny evaporator is in my future after all!


Danged Little Varmit!

The last few days have brought us wonderfully high sap runs. Each evening when I get home from work, I head out into the woods to check the taps and carry the sap back to the house. Two nights ago as I was approaching the last tree, I noticed that one of the sap sacs was empty while the rest were full.

A quick inspection revealed that a small hole near the bottom had allowed all of the sap to run out onto the ground. I went back to the house, retrieved a new sac and replaced it. I figured that I must have snagged the bag on a bramble while I was emptying it on the previous day.

Last night as I was completing my rounds, I found the same bag in the same condition, dripping the precious liquid on the ground again! This time I looked a little more carefully and realized that the punctures were in pairs! Little rodent teeth had worked their way along the bottom of the sac until they managed to pierce it.

I had read that squirrels have been known to bite holes in these sacs to get a taste of the sweet liquid. They also reportedly will nibble twigs on maple trees in the early spring to do the same thing. Luckily I already knew a remedy for the problem.

I headed back to the house to retrieve another replacement sac. This time I covered the bottom edge with duct tape to make it more difficult to puncture and so that it would taste unpleasant.

This evening's tour of the woods found the new sac intact and bulging with sap. I didn't see any evidence of gnawing this time so I'm not sure if it deterred the critter or not.

I guess this is one of the drawbacks of using plastic bags instead of buckets!

Three Major Improvements

This has been a weekend of steam and woodsmoke. The sap started boiling at 3:30pm on Saturday (we took the kids to a movie first). I set the sap aside and knocked off for the night at about 10:30pm. Sunday morning I had it boiling again by about 11am and have been at it non-stop until now. It is 1am on Monday morning and it is finally very nearly syrup.

This time around I achieved what I consider three major improvements to the process:

1) I spent some time modifying the woodstove to better function as an evaporator. I removed the old lid and bent the metal until the steam pan could sit fully down flush with the surface and level. This change made the task of evaporating so much easier! The pan could now hold many more gallons of sap and no longer required constant vigilance to prevent scorching. It also effectively reduced the height of the firebox thus increasing the heat directed into the pan and improving the efficiency of firewood useage.

2) I figured out the secret to filtering the syrup. During the last run I waited until the syrup had reached the final sugar concentration before attempting to filter it. The thick liquid took FOREVER to drip through the wool cloth and I had to reheat it again before bottling. This time I filtered the syrup before it was fully thickened. The resulting syrup is just as clear and it was so much easier to pour it through the filter when it was still thin.

3) During the last run, I had too much heat under the syrup during the final minutes of boiling and am sure that I overshot the specific gravity before I had turned it off. This time, I crept up on the final sugar concentration and reduced the heat gradually until it was just simmering. As a result, I was able to control the quality of the syrup and get exactly the concentration I wanted.

These changes led to a much more pleasant and controlled sugaring experience. Now if I could only find a way to do it in a few hours instead of a couple of days I'd be all set! The five bottles of syrup from this run are shown in the picture. The bottle of store bought syrup is there for comparison purposes. Syrup is graded by color with the lighter color being the better product. You can judge for yourself.

Big Sap Run!

Conditions must have been perfect on Thursday. When I went out into the woods on Friday morning the sap sacs were bulging heavily on the trees. The task of emptying and hauling the sap back to the house became quite a chore. Equally problematic was finding enough containers to hold it all after it had been briefly boiled to stabilize it.

The take for that single day was 9.75 gallons. That's more than 1 1/2 gallons per tree! That one-day flow beats the previous best day by a mile and represents roughly one-third of our total sap collection for the season thus far.

I now have every large pot and container in the house full of frozen sap and Janet is just about fed up with not being able to use any of her cooking pots. Saturday morning we are going to fire up the woodstove evaporator and start boiling down the accumulated 21 gallons. If all goes well we should end up with three times the syrup that our last run yielded.

Sugarin' Report

The weather has been favorable and we have been busy. Our little sugarbush has been yielding sap for most days since we tapped on February 7th. If you look on the "Sugarbush" page on our website you will find that I have been logging the daily temperatures and the sap collected each day. As you can see, our highest one day sap yield was 3.5 gallons.

Since it took a while to gather enough to justify boiling it down, I have been briefly boiling and then freezing the sap until I had a little over nine gallons. Then I fired up the woodstove evaporator in the back yard and tended it late into the night (click on the video). Last night I finally finished the syrup by boiling it on the kitchen stove until it reached the correct specific gravity which I measured with a hydrometer.

Once it was officially syrup, I filtered it for bottling by pouring it through a special wool syrup filter. This proved to be the least fun step of the entire process. Because I had so little syrup, it was difficult to keep it hot enough for it to easily flow through the cloth. By 2am I finally managed to get the result bottled as you can see in the photo.

In the end, I only got 16 oz. of syrup from the original 9.1 gallons of sap. By my calculation that means the sugar content of the sap was originally 1.07%. That is unfortunately about half that of a typical sugarbush of proper sugar maples. At that rate, I will need to boil down 73 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. I assume that means that my planned tree identification exercise next summer will reveal that we have Red and Silver maples.

Nonetheless, the resulting syrup is light amber and very tasty. I passed out samples this morning and everyone was surprised that the taste was a more creamy vanilla-caramel than the expected standard maple flavor. Aidan was ready to haul out the griddle and fire up the stove for a pancake breakfast. I told him that we may wait a while before cracking that bottle open. It took too much work to make it and I just wanted to put it somewhere prominent and occasionally hold it up to the light to admire the maple magic.


Now We Wait

Aidan, Sean and I headed out this morning into a dripping world. The warm air was making quick work of melting away the snow accumulation of the past weeks.

We hauled our maple tapping gear out into the woods and got right to it. We drilled each tree, tapped the spouts in place and hung the blue plastic "Sap Sacs" in place. We were a little late in the morning and the temperature was already 43 degrees when we started. It seems that we missed most of the day's flow.

The third tree that we tapped rewarded our efforts with a steady drip of faintly sweet crystal clear sap out of each spile. The boys took turns catching the drips in their mouths before we set the bags in place. You can see from the picture that Aidan would happily have stayed there acting as a human sap sac.

All of the trees stopped dripping shortly after they were tapped, most likely due to the crazily warm weather. We probably collected a few cups before it stopped. Now we'll have to sit back and see what the weather will bring us.


Tapping Day - Saturday!

I've continued to watch the weather reports and have been reading the messages on Mapletrader.com from sugarmakers out there. Everyone is excited and itching to get the season started. There are reports that a few people have already begun tapping in West Virginia and Vermont.

Although the temperature this morning was -2 degrees, there is a major warm front coming through this weekend. Our forecasts are predicting highs in the 40's for at least three days starting on Saturday. From what I have read many sugarmakers in Michigan and Pennsylvania will be jumping in and I plan to be among them!
My plans for surgarin' this spring are crude but will hopefully be successful. The steam table pan that I purchased arrived yesterday. Tonight I'm going to go move my old woodstove to our farm and start getting things set up out behind the house.
If all goes well, we will have taps set and sap dripping by Saturday afternoon! We'll take lots of pictures and post them to the website under: Farm Tour\Sugarbush.

Warming Trend!

This morning's 7 degree temperature did little to dampen my rising anticipation of spring. If you have a look at my Sugarbush page on the website (under "Tour the Farm"), you will see that I have been carefully tracking the daily highs and lows.

Since mid-January, we have been seeing an upward warming trend. It is true that there have been a few dips back into bitterly cold territory, but the trend is there just the same. We have had two days above freezing and are looking to have a third this coming weekend.

I am watching the charts for the best time to tap the maple trees. The best condition for sap flow is daily highs at least in the upper 30's and nights in the 20's. Part of the risk of tapping too early is that a return to colder weather will stop the sap flow and the cells in the tapped holes will begin the process of sealing up before the season is through. The risk of starting too late is that warmer temperatures of March and early April will cause the sap to get "buddy" and unusable as the composition changes to stimulate the opening of leaf buds.

If nothing else, the rush is really just my excitement to get out of the confines of the house and start doing something on the farm!

Sugarin' Supplies!

Today was one that I have been anticipating for some time. The boys and I drove to Mason, MI, to a business called Sugarbush Supply Company. It was housed in a building nestled in the back of an attractive old farm next to a barnyard full of cows.

The showroom of Sugarbush Supply had three or four gleamingly beautiful evaporators, including the one that I would dearly love to buy, the "Half Pint". They also had displays of fancy bottles, sugarin' guidebooks and many shelves filled with fittings and devices for the professional sugar trade.

I had my shopping list all worked out ahead of time. My first version of the list had called for the nice traditional stainless buckets and the full works. Unfortunately it had added up to nearly $500. After a couple of sessions of looking for less expensive options, I am the proud owner of 18 taps worth of genuine maple sugarin' equipment to the total of $165.

I went with smaller diameter taps that are more healthful for the trees and gave up on the nice stainless pails in favor of much more economical "sap sacs". I'll post pictures of them in use in a month or so. They are basically big, blue plastic bags that hang from the taps. Not as romantic as being able to hear that "plink, plink, plink" sound of the sap falling but you've got to start somewhere!

Next I'll have to rig an evaporator. I hope to slap one together using an old woodstove that I have used in the past to heat my woodshop. I'll let you know how that comes together when I get to it.
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